F5 Escapes is a unique start-up company committed to enabling and ensuring safety of women-only travel in India. Founders, Malini Gowrishankar and Akanksha Bumb started the company with the premise to change the perception that India is an unsafe travel destination for women. Today they curate many experiences for single and group female inbound tourists and also keep the local economy alive.
CSP caught up with the founders of F5 Escapes on why they took to entrepreneurship, what drives them, and out-of-the-box ideas to promote responsible tourism in India:
What inspired you to take up entrepreneurship and why tourism?
Akanksha: Travel planning has been a passion. I wanted people to experience India in a way that forms a connection and not just as a tick on the box. Tourism in India is an exciting place to be. It is challenging, no doubt, but that is all the more reason to be in this space. Entrepreneurship gave me the freedom of experimenting and approaching an itinerary in a non-conventional way. Building something from ground up and creating a work culture that is unique and reflects our shared values, is what keeps us motivated.
Malini: Travel and giving back to the community are things that keep me going. Hence entrepreneurship, that too in tourism, was a natural choice for me. The choice of women travel weighed heavily in the fact that India wasn’t considered a women-friendly destination and the time was ripe to solve that problem.
In your eyes, what is the best that India has to offer in terms of experiential travel?
Akanksha: If it has to be one thing I pick, it will be people. We are a beautiful chaos. India is such a diverse country and every nook has a different story to tell. Although the people are so different from one another – even within the same state boundaries – the warmth is consistent. Once you start immersing yourself in the lives of your hosts, your experience becomes layered, multi-faceted and so much more emotional.
Malini: For me, it is the mind boggling cultural diversity again, over and above the rich geographical diversity and ancient history. No other country has such a unique combination of features and I truly feel honored to represent and showcase India in the travel arena.
Yes, Padhaaro Mhaaro Des. Vaango!
Your motto is to redefine the way women travel in India through F5 Escapes. Can you explain?
Akanksha: Growing up, I never thought travelling as a woman will be difficult or any different from travelling as a man. My naïveté stemmed from the fact that as a young woman, I was accorded the same freedom and confidence at home as my male counterparts. It was only when I looked around at my female classmates and colleagues and saw their and their families’ inhibition to go out alone, I realised that I was raised as an exception. When I started travelling on my own, I understood some of their fears and inhibitions. Travel for women needs to be redefined in India, not because women lack capability, but because our mind-sets and general infrastructure do not support our free movement. As a country, we are still not used to seeing a woman on her own; and as women, we are seldom taught or encouraged to be on our own. F5 Escape’s approach is two-pronged – change the mind-set that still isn’t very comfortable seeing a woman by herself and create support systems, safety measures and a vetted list of vendors to enable a safe and comfortable journey.
Malini: Interestingly, my life had been the other extreme and that’s what made me take up to travel. I grew up in a very protected environment where I was not allowed to venture anywhere in the same city on my own, let alone travel to somewhere else by myself. I know for a fact that it takes tremendous guts to take that first step. The presence of a support system like F5 for women can accelerate this process of claiming their own space and help them feel way more confident in the process. The rest, Akanksha has explained very well.
In your assessment, from which country does India get the maximum amount of interest and why?
Both: Based on the data we have, the USA has been a major contributor to inbound tourism. A lot of first generation NRIs – across countries – have a great interest in rediscovering their roots. This segment is also potentially more open to experience authentic local tourism.
What are the ways in which India can become tourist friendly and offer to the world distinct value propositions?
Akanksha: Civic sense. As a country we have failed so many of our heritage monuments and natural landscapes. Most of our hikes are littered with plastic. Some of our monuments are defaced with spit marks and graffiti. As citizens, we need to be more aware of how we dispose of what we consume and how we leave a place we enjoyed, intact for other to enjoy it as well.
From the government and civic bodies, we need better waste management systems and not just in cities. Most of India’s tourist destinations are smaller towns and they just don’t have the wherewithal to handle the waste that tourism generates; mountains especially.
Malini: Clean toilets – there is a lot of work to be done in this area. Natural loos, compost toilets, etc., I am sure would find acceptance among tourists as long as they are clean and hygienic. Embracing technology – a tourist will feel much safer in a country if they have access to local amenities – police, hospital, judiciary, etc. With the connected world that we have, time is ripe to cut thru the red tape and make important services accessible to tourists via technology. Encourage problem solvers – encourage more and more problem solvers / travel entrepreneurs – ensures that the benefits of the various schemes actually reaches the folks who deserve to be helped.
What are the increasing or changing areas of interests for inbound international tourists vis-a-vis India?
Akanksha: I would like to believe that tourism is getting more local in terms of experience.
Malini: I strongly agree with Akanksha. With travel infrastructure becoming standardised across the world, local experiences are the key differentiators of the future. I think language based tourism can be a great idea. For example, someone from Japan can come to Tamil Nadu to study Tamil. India is home to some of the most ancient languages in the world and we have a ripe opportunity there for the future.
Medical tourism and film tourism seems to be lucrative and are picking up. Your thoughts?
Both: As long as the money flows back to local operators and the practices are ethical and unexploitative, why not!
What ought to be done to enable the soft skills of the labour force in the Indian tourism industry?
Both: Sensitisation. The one thing we hear the most from our foreign and domestic clients is that they get stared at a lot. The curiosity of seeing someone who looks very different or even seeing a woman alone, results in stares. It is often harmless and occurs just because it is not commonplace. Sensitising the workforce about interpersonal communication – verbal and non-verbal can go a long way in making India a women-friendly country for travel.
What would be your recommendations for India to tap into the potential of social media to attract inbound tourists?
Both: Responsive tourism boards. Encouraging local operators. Regular meets of stakeholders and more ease of doing business.
If you were to suggest a possible campaign for tourism in India, what would it entail?T